Squatter's Squalor

Chris Columbus succeeds in opening up 'Rent' in a movie backlot sort of way but fails to unearth genuine emotion

[To the tune of ''Seasons of Love'']



Christmas Angel: Heredia (center), with Rapp and Pascal

One hundred thirty five minutes of my life wasted.
One hundred thirty five minutes I’ll never see again.
One hundred thirty five minutes of sheer utter boredom.
How do you measure the minutes of a flop?

Here’s how: You call it Rent.

If the great Bob Fosse were alive, he might have made something remotely interesting out of Rent, the cinematic adaptation of the lame, derivative rock opera that, for some ungodly reason, is still going strong on Broadway. Instead, the task fell to Chris Columbus, director of the first two Harry Potters. Columbus fails to discover a new world in his quest to bring this story of a group of East Village bohemians — mostly HIV-positive artists, junkies, exotic dancers and drag queens who live in a condemned warehouse and rail against the establishment — to life. He succeeds in opening up the story in a backlot sort of way — everything about the movie feels simultaneously real and artificial — but fails to unearth even one golden nugget of genuine emotion.

Rent, the musical, had plenty of problems, not the least of which was a shamelessly manipulative storyline that lacked the tragic courage of the Puccini opera from which composer Johnathan Larson liberally pilfered. By deploying the old ”E.T. ploy” (a character dies in a wrenching climax and then magically springs back to life), Larson betrayed the main source material of La Boheme. Columbus allows this moment to stick, which is a shame. Had the character remained dead, the movie might have had a moment of emotional weight.

The director’s most crucial mistake, however, was to employ much of the original 1996 Broadway cast to reprise their roles. Ten years later, none of them look like the twentysomethings they’re meant to be. While the stage can hide the ravages of age, the camera is especially unforgiving — especially when it comes to close ups of neck flab (Adam Pascal) and wrinkles around the eyes (Anthony Rapp). In fact, the cast look more like fortysomethings — and isn’t it a little embarrassing to be a tormented rock guitarist or performance artist living in squatter’s squalor when you should be out mowing the lawn and ferrying your family to the nearest Wal-Mart for a blissful day of consumerism?

To be fair, Law & Order‘s Jesse L. Martin — as a gay HIV-positive philosopher who falls in love with Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a resourceful HIV-positive drag queen — has one hell of a set of pipes. He can sing like nobody’s business. Idina Menzel, as lesbian performance artist Maureen Johnson, is sexy, luminous, severe and self-mocking. Unfortunately, she’s obliged to perform the regrettable ”Over the Moon,” a mid-movie performance art piece that stops time, and not in a good way. Heredia, for his part, has energy to spare but seems to have trouble with lip syncing (ironic, for someone playing a drag queen). He misses so many vocal cues during his introductory number ”Today 4 U,” that you wonder if he’s channeling Ashlee Simpson.



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As Roger, a musician looking to write one great song before he expires from AIDS-related causes, Adam Pascal’s musical moments tend toward the itchy, scratchy and screaming — which is mildly disconcerting when he’s standing two feet away from the person he’s blaring at. The recipient of most of Rogers shrieking is junkie/erotic dancer Mimi, who, as played by new addition Rosario Dawson, has all the electricity of a 15-watt bulb.

Occasionally, Columbus hits a sweet spot — ”Santa Fe” turns into a cleverly choreographed sequence on a subway train — and ”Take Me or Leave Me,” sung by Maureen and girlfriend Joanne (Tracie Thoms), is a show stopper. The rest of the songs are simply show killers.

The most heinous of them is ”La Vie Boheme,” a shameless lift from the musical Hair. It’s staged on a table top, but in the world of Rent, that’s hardly a novelty, as people are always jumping up on tables, bartops, any flat surface available, as if to say ”Who needs nice furniture? Let’s scuff the world!”

Judging by its opening weekend box office — Rent came in fifth, with a wee $10 million take — my guess is that it won’t be long before Columbus’s latest adventure in moviemaking will be evicted from your local multiplex.

Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at rshulman@metroweekly.com.

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